Wild buffalo are not meant to die on our roads. It’s time for the world’s first wildlife bridge dedicated to safe passage of wild buffalo outside Yellowstone National Park, as Congress appropriates $350M for such infrastructure nationwide.
If you follow the news at all, you’ve no doubt heard about the latest data on global wildlife populations - they’re down 70% on average over just the last 50 years. The biodiversity crisis is just as alarming as the climate crisis. This was brought home to me in a very real way recently.
The International Wildlife Coexistence Network, which is advancing a future where the global community lives sustainably in relationship with local wildlife, had it first ever (in person) global conference last month here in our neck of the woods at rustic Chico Hot Springs in the Paradise Valley. Activists, scientists, researchers and wildlife enthusiasts from as far away as Australia, South Africa, the Middle East, Asia and, closer to home, Canada gathered together to sweat in Gaia’s amniotic waters, share stories about how humans are learning to coexist with wildlife, and develop strategies for doing better.
Yellowstone is like a “Mecca” for wildlife enthusiasts around the world - and for good reason. Our wild bison, for one, are mega-charismatic! While we could proudly show off our beautiful, relatively unspoiled landscapes here in SW Montana, and did with field trips, when it comes to coexisting with wildlife, our record is more problematic.
Exhibit A: On my way to the conference, winding through a blaze of gold and green hillsides in the Gallatin River canyon along U.S. Highway 191, I was privileged to witness a great bull moose munching on moss in the river shallows — right outside the Park boundary in the Gallatin NF near the Taylor Fork. Families were stopping on the turnout that looks out over that bend in the river, celebrating our good fortune to be within a hundred yards of such a magnificent beast going about his morning ablutions, oblivious to the spectacle of himself. On my return from the conference at the end of the week, I learned that he’d become the fourth moose killed recently on our congested, high-speed mountain roads. Four wild bison had also been struck and killed on Montana roads in the brief time I was at the wildlife coexistence conference. And a grizzly was auto-killed just afterwards near our home on the edge of the Lee Metcalf Wilderness.
Exhibit B: This past August, a lone bull bison had wandered up the Paradise Valley outside of the Park, getting as far as the town of Pray near Chico Hot Springs, before being gunned down - for no good reason at all - by five officers with the Montana Department of Livestock. Coexistence, of course, requires some measure of tolerance, but MDOL has zero tolerance for our national mammal. While they like to pretend they’re protecting domestic cattle from brucellosis, bull bison are not capable of transmitting the disease back to cows (it’s only transmitted via aborted fetuses). Instead, MDOL policy seems to be that here in Montana, the only good buffalo is a dead buffalo - a disgusting cultural replay of the very genocide and ecocide that is still our legacy here in Paradise Valley, living in the most beautiful of the lower 48 states.
Not everyone values this natural abundance for what it is. Many still choose instead to promote a ‘way of death’ (they sometimes call ‘way of life’) that has traditionally killed anything they can’t monetize or make sport of. In spite of their best efforts, we still have wolves, bison, antelope and bear here.
As a life-long conservationist and wildlife advocate, I have no qualms about humans hunting big game and filling their freezers, especially many of my eco-activist friends who boycott factor farmed meats. Similarly, while it arises out of a dysfunctional “wildlife management” (oxymoron alert) plan for bison, we can still celebrate the re-establishment of the 15,000+ year-old relationship between native tribes and wild Buffalo - after 150 years of forced separation - even if only in the form of tribal hunts in overly-constricted bison ‘tolerance’ zones on the Park’s periphery. The Buffalo Field Campaign advocates for a significant expansion of these areas of good bison habitat, with tribes to be afforded care-taker authority over their Buffalo brothers and sisters. Allowing bison, a keystone species, to rematriate large landscapes not only permits better hunting opportunities, but will have cascading benefits for plants and animals outside the Park as well, just as wolves had when they were re-introduced inside the Park.
Everyone wins in that kind of scenario. Reconciliation with Indigenous peoples and restoration of natural habitats with keystone species like bison, beaver, and otter is the best approach to repairing the climate in a decarbonizing world, as the United Nations itself recognizes.
But semi-trucks taking out bison and moose on the roads just outside the crown jewel of the world’s natural heritage sites is an unnatural bridge too far for me. That is no way for a majestic moose or beautiful buffalo to meet their end. We humans can do better than this. Much better.
How is it, exactly, that with all the many wildlife land-bridges and tunnels being constructed around the world, we still tolerate such senseless bloodbaths on the roads traversing the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem?
A new report calls on western states to do more to protect wildlife migration corridors. Across the country, drivers hit 1 to 2 million animals each year, according to the Federal Highway Administration. Approximately 200 people die (as do most of those animals), 30,000 more are injured, and the cost to all of us is upward of $8 billion.
According to the Park Service, the total amount of large mammals struck inside Yellowstone NP from 2017-2021 was 241. Outside the Park, according to insurance statistics, Montana is the worst state for animal collision fatalities, with 24.6 animal crash deaths per 1 million vehicles, and 43 human fatalities from animal collisions between 2009 and 2018. According to the Montana Department of Transportation, ten people died in 2020 from hitting animals on the road, the latest year such statistics are available. Wildlife migration corridors save lives — and protect wildlife from gruesome encounters with metallic, fire-breathing monsters.
Photo Credit: Patrice Schoefolt
Coexistence or Cohabitation?
One of the more interesting topics of discussion at the Wildlife Coexistence Conference was the idea of “compassionate conservation.” Believe it or not, this idea is still considered quite controversial in both scientific and conservation circles -because compassionate conservation asks us to consider the intrinsic value of wildlife animals as individuals, rather than just as statistics or populations.
According to a related conference discussion, we can see this as the difference between mere coexistence with wildlife and actual cohabitation, or sharing habitat — as the first people of Turtle Island did, and as the people of Horse Butte have learned to do with the buffalo that come out of the Park in the Spring to calve and access lower elevation grasses (and lawns!). What was once a flash-point for traumatic conflict between MDOL, homeowners, activists and bison every Spring is now, thankfully, protected habitat, due largely to the vigilance of BFC’s hardy volunteers and the compassion and love of the Neighbors of Horse Butte for buffalo and all things wild.
Nobody on Horse Butte complains about having buffalo in their midst on occasion. So why are they confined to YNP, which US Fish & Wildlife Service says is only 15% of their historic range?
Coexistence, as with zoos and Parks, or cohabitation, as with elk?
Buffalo are highly social animals that have a close-knit family structure. This is not a matter of anthropomorphizing at all, when you consider that according to some tribes, humans actually organized themselves socially by observing the ways that Buffalo structure their herds. This is, in part, what it means when a tribe like the Lakota refer to themselves as “Buffalo People,” and consider Buffalo to be family to them. We would say they co-evolved. They would say, instead, that they are one family.
That is the spiritual foundation of compassionate conservation.
So it matters a lot if a matriarch of the herd is killed by a Mack truck. Or even if that squirrel in the road happens to be out gathering food for her brood when she is run over. It is quite anthropocentric of us (i.e., species prejudice) to pretend that all squirrels are the same, or that wild bison are viable at particular population levels without regard to the way they organize their herds. Think of an elephant herd in Africa where only the matriarch(s) remember where the secret water holes are to be found during prolonged droughts, which are now becoming the ‘new normal’ with increasing climate chaos. If a hunter takes out the matriarchs, the herd is no longer viable, no matter its size.
With hunting comes the expectation that a hunter will exercise ethical agency. No traditional Crow hunter, for example, would ever consider taking out the matriarch of a Buffalo herd. While we Westerners see a Buffalo jump and immediately imagine bison being run off a cliff like lemmings, I learned from a Crow tribal member at Chico that, according to archival evidence he’d seen and elder stories he’d heard, this would not have been the norm, as the matriarchs are found at the front of the herd. It is much more likely, he said, that they’d run the herd in such a manner as to sideswipe the cliffs - picking off weaker members in the same way they might have observed wolf packs accomplish in their own hunts - and this traditional ecological insight seems entirely consistent with what can still be seen at the Story Ranch in Paradise Valley.
Ancient cairns run parallel to this jump at Story Ranch.
In other words, even before horses arrived on Turtle Island, the First Peoples were practicing compassionate conservation!
Honoring Wildlife, Respecting Habitat
As stated by Tim McDonnell, a reporter covering global climate change and energy issues, in an Opinion piece in the NY Times: “Climate change ensures that there are few if any species left on Earth that aren’t feeling the effects of human activity. Well-intentioned meddling in ecosystems is now unavoidable in many cases, and has the potential to forge a new, mutually beneficial covenant of protection between ‘us’ and ‘them.’” McDonnell quotes Rebecca Shaw, chief scientist at the World Wildlife Fund, for the proposition that we need to break down the artificial psychic barrier between people and wildlife that causes us to think of nature as “something you go to, instead of something you are a part of.”
That’s the spirit of building land bridges with fencing to funnel wildlife over busy highways, together with tunnels at strategic spots for wildlife species that tend to avoid the bridges. The showcase for such cohabitation is Canada’s oldest national park, Banff, which boasts the most wildlife crossing structures anywhere in the world: 38 wildlife tunnels and six wildlife bridges as of 2014. Yellowstone NP, of course, is the world’s first national park, and yet has nothing like Banff’s wildlife infrastructure to protect its wildlife treasures.
The closest land bridge to Yellowstone is 150 miles to the south, beyond Grand Teton NP, at Wyoming’s Trappers Point, which is situated along that same killer corridor, Highway 191. Up to 85 vehicle-animal collisions used to occur annually near that crossing. Then, in 2012, the Wyoming DOT completed construction of an $11 million project that includes two wildlife bridges, six tunnels, and 12 miles of fencing funneling pronghorn and other wild animals to these safe crossings. In the first three years post-construction, wildlife-vehicle collisions fell by 80%. As an added benefit, mule deer movement back and forth across the road increased by more than 60%, and pronghorn by more than 300%, contributing to stronger and healthier populations of these migrating animals. The project is expected to pay for itself in fifteen years with the reductions in collisions.
According to data provided by Yellowstone's public affairs office, approximately 100 animals are killed each year within Yellowstone National Park — numbers that mirror statistics published by Grand Teton National Park. Hot spots for collisions include YNP’s famed Lamar Valley, the Tower-Roosevelt area, and U.S. Highway 191, which cuts across the northwest corner of the park in Montana, where I spied that magnificent moose. Bison and mule deer are the most common victims of vehicular theriocide (the term comes from an article in the International Journal for Crime, Justice and Social Democracy) in and near YNP.
Speed is often the biggest factor in these collisions. That stretch of 191 has a posted speed limit of 55, though from my own experience it is neither observed nor enforced. Nearly 5 million people now visit this wildlife Mecca every year, up from 3 million pre-pandemic.
You would think we would value wildlife in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem enough to slow down, and maybe with lower speed limits commercial truckers would tend to avoid coursing through the beating heart of the Northern Rockies. Most wildlife collisions happen at night, because at any speed above 45 mph, drivers do not have sufficient reaction time to avoid that animal being illuminated by their headlights.
Buffalo Field Campaign volunteers devote thousands of hours every winter and spring to patrolling the roads outside the Park here in Montana and coordinating as best we can with trucking agencies to minimize the number of truck/bison collisions and fatalities. It would make our task so much easier if people demanded that the State adjust speed limits to conditions favorable for bison, moose and other wildlife, at least until such time as safe passages are constructed - and there’s hope on that front, as well, though it remains unclear how much bison will benefit.
As part of recent infrastructure laws passed by Congress, about $350M will be released over the next few years specifically for wildlife crossings in the U.S. Brooke Shifrin, the Wildlife Conservation Coordinator for the Greater Yellowstone Coalition and co-coordinator for Montanans for Safe Wildlife Passage, responded recently to a call by the editorial board of the Bozeman Chronicle for prioritizing wildlife crossings. She pointed to a coalition of non-profit groups working with both Montana Department of Transportation and Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks to lay the groundwork for such projects, including identifying “areas of greatest need for highway improvements based on wildlife-vehicle collisions and important areas for wildlife movement and conservation.” Regarding the new federal funding, Shifrin highlighted the “importance of data driven projects” in securing such funds.
The difference between conservation and “compassionate conservation” is reflected in this emphasis on data, versus values like the “important areas for wildlife” Shifrin references. For example, one can be fairly sure that driver fatalities will be weighed much heavier than the value of the particular animal(s) involved. Thus, areas high in collision fatalities will find it easier to secure funding than areas with a lower number of collisions (and fewer human fatalities) involving species like bison that are, or should be, valued more than mule deer. Do you see the difference there beteween “values driven” and “data driven”? Driven by data, BFC’s vigilance in reducing the total number of collisions around the Park could make it more difficult to secure funding for a bison bridge on Highway 191. But what area could be more important than wildlife than the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.
A more values-driven approach would reflect how much Americans and people the world over cherish Yellowstone NP and the wildlife that inhabit this entirely unique ecosystem. Perhaps what is needed to tip the scales towards values, and away from data, would be more compassionate advocacy from the National Park Service's leadership. After all, the Park Service’s trust responsibilities for our precious wildlife legacy extends beyond the Park boundaries, as a matter of law.
Merely coexisting with wildlife is not enough during an extinction crisis with plummeting biodiversity and wildlife populations. To survive the climate crisis, we will need to change our relationship to nature - and that includes learning to cohabit landscapes with wildlife - and repair our relationships with Indigenous people. The founder and Executive Director of International Wildlife Coexistence Network, Suzanne Asha Stone, puts it this way:
“We understand ‘coexistence’ as being in peaceful right relations with the wild ones. Honor, respect, fighting for their right to live free of human persecution, ignorance, or pressure. It is deeply more than just sharing space. They have an inherent right to their wildness. To the wild places that sustain them. They are our best hope for learning how to live as part of Nature instead of against Her, which dooms us all.”
Humans have the ignominious distinction of being the only species ever to have caused a global extinction crisis. Because of that we now inherit a moral responsibility to protect those species we have imperiled.
And at the same time, due to Western science catching up with the Traditional Ecological Knowledge of Indigenous peoples, we now have the know-how to become the first generation in human history to leave the natural world in a better place than we found it. A new kind of ‘American Dream.’ That’s the point of the upcoming UN Conventions on Biodiversity to be advanced in Montreal next month, and that’s the kind of legacy BFC is working towards as well.
We encourage all who share these goals to embrace restorative justice for Buffalo and the tribes, a course of reconciliation that strives to re-establish healthy relationships between resurgent Tribal Nations, millions of free-roaming wild Buffalo restoring our nation’s desiccated grasslands, resilient native ecosystems with abundant wildlife diversity, the American people, and wildlife lovers the world over.
And please, whenever children or wildlife are present, drive compassionately!